As listening tours, employee surveys, and workforce training have grown alongside increased corporate interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), another hallmark of the current DEI environment has become ubiquitous: the DEI (non)apology.
Spotify made headlines earlier this year when its CEO not only decided against severing ties with podcaster Joe Rogan over Covid-19 misinformation and racist language, but sent a widely criticized non-apology to its workforce and doubled down on the company’s inaction. The snowballing controversy has now swept up Spotify users, employees, the artists and stars on its platform, and union staffers at Spotify-owned podcast production companies.
Better.com’s CEO, whose Zoom delivery of mass layoffs of nearly a thousand employees — including the entire DEI team — after a cash infusion received widespread scorn and condemnation, shared a similarly derided apology to the company.
Additional examples abound of incidents where companies caused disproportionate harm to women, LGBTQ+ people, low-income people, people of color, and other members of marginalized communities, then attempted to atone for their actions by making an apology widely perceived as trite and insincere. Why are these dismal non-apologies so prevalent, when the amount of negative press they generate should be easy lessons for the PR teams drafting them to learn from? Because the problem lies not just in the tone and delivery used, but also in the willingness of corporate leaders directing them to genuinely understand and be held accountable for resolving DEI-related harm.
Harm Is an Iceberg
Almost every leader will at some point in their tenure be accused of DEI-related harm, especially amid the greater awareness of social issues today. Sometimes, the issues are small and brought to their attention as soon as they arise — perhaps they used an offensive word in a meeting, or carelessly sent an email that had repercussions they didn’t foresee. In these situations, leaders can resolve these small challenges by thanking those delivering feedback, communicating their intent to do better, and quickly making the appropriate changes in their language or behavior. The incident will thus pass without much, if any, attention at all.
But when leaders brush off these issues, or if they haven’t created a psychologically safe environment in their workplace where people feel empowered to share negative feedback, these incidents can pile up with no release — like shaking a can of soda — all without leaders being aware of the bottled-up pressure. If an organization waxes poetic about pay equity on social media platforms, but widespread pay inequity is a poorly kept secret among employees? Pressure. If disabled employees, LGBTQ+ employees, employees of color, and women are “celebrated” during their respected heritage/history months, but ignored when they bring up issues of discrimination? More pressure. If employees from marginalized communities are routinely touted by marketing teams as examples of “diversity,” but their DEI hiring and retention committees are routinely denied funding and resources? Even more pressure.
When this pressure hits a breaking point, even the smallest or most mundane incident can set the whole thing off. If leaders in these situations lack awareness about the DEI pressure cooker their organizations have become, they can be completely taken by surprise by the strength and explosiveness of a controversy when it takes off. This is very much the case with some leaders I’ve worked with, whose candid comments reflect their incomplete understanding of harm when it occurs:
“I know my language isn’t always the most appropriate. But why are so many people getting so angry at me for what I said yesterday, when they could have told me at any point in the last few months?”
“I didn’t realize how frustrated employees were with our return-to-office policy. I talked to a few employees who seemed okay with it; what changed?”
“I’m irritated that employees on our DEI committee publicized the conversation we had about their DEI demands. We don’t have the means to invest so much in the way of resources into our HR processes, I told them that. Why are they so set on making us look bad?”
Each of these characterizations missed the big picture.
Employees weren’t just harmed by the language used on one occasion; they were harmed by a consistent pattern of harmful language that wasn’t changing and a leader that was dismissive of gentle and well-intended attempts to suggest replacements. Their outcry was a calculated escalation to compel that leader to take the issue seriously.
Employees weren’t just harmed by a poorly designed return-to-office policy; they were harmed by the opaque process to develop it that ignored employee input and centered the wishes of a few executives over the needs and realities of many other stakeholder groups. Their outcry was a calculated escalation to compel leadership to revisit their decision-making process. Employees weren’t just harmed by an unfavorable conversation about DEI demands; they were harmed by the constant doublespeak where DEI is communicated externally to be a “high priority,” but is never treated like a high priority with resource allocation and goal-setting. Their outcry was a calculated escalation to ensure that external audiences aren’t misled and can contribute to the alignment of words and actions.
Apologize, Then Follow-Up
When you or your organization inflicts harm, making a sincere apology is crucial. But when focusing on the characteristics of a good apology, many leaders — and PR firms — overly focus on their tone and wording, overlooking the most important requirement: that they are apologizing for the right thing to begin with.
The best apologies reflect a genuine effort to understand the iceberg beyond the immediate incident of harm and take responsibility for more than the bare minimum of accountability. They show that leaders are not just focused on the contents of a viral social media post or an unflattering article, but their own organizational culture, strategy, structure, and process; their own words and actions; and their own stakeholders.
These apologies read like messages from real people willing to use their authority and power to make situations right, rather than overcoached figureheads trying to avoid legal liability at all costs. And most importantly, they show an understanding that if harm was escalated all the way into the public sphere, leaders have a long road of learning, accountability, and change ahead of them if they want to rebuild trust, reputation, and image.
If your organization or the leaders in it have inflicted DEI-related harm, consider following these steps as you seek to apologize.
1. Thank and protect whistleblowers.
Fear of repercussions is one of the leading reasons why people choose not to report misconduct or harm. Even after harm has been reported, the situation can escalate if the individuals who initially speak out are punished for being whistleblowers. If whistleblowers are anonymous, remind all leaders in the organization to protect their anonymity and not make efforts to learn their identity. If their identities are known, ensure that all relevant decision-makers maintain a consistently high standard of deliberateness and transparency when making unrelated decisions involving their promotion, review, well-being, and disciplinary action to mitigate real or perceived retaliation. Example:
“We, the leadership team, want to thank those who saw behavior that was inconsistent with we stand for as an organization and used their voices to keep us all accountable. They represent who we can all be at our best. As the leadership team continues to investigate the situation, we want to make it clear that our workplace does not tolerate discrimination or retaliation in any form. We expect all leaders to uphold these standards and be ready to work together in the service of a better organization.”
2. Validate and address the impact of harm.
Many leaders, whether out of a desire to move cautiously or a misguided belief that they understand their stakeholders’ experiences better than stakeholders themselves do, often respond unproductively to initial accusations of harm. Avoid minimizing, challenging, or undermining the impact of the harm identified; while people reporting harm may not always have a full understanding of why harm occurred, they always have an accurate understanding of how that harm impacts them.
DEI-related harm can result in adverse mental health outcomes, lost opportunities, damaged trust, monetary damages, and even physical injury. These impacts are not up for debate; it is your job, when they are communicated to you, to acknowledge that they have happened as described and address them. Example:
“This organization has not lived up to its ideals and we as a leadership team are responsible. We are learning, more slowly than we would like, that many of our decisions have had profoundly harmful impacts on wide swaths of our workforce. Many members of our workforce experienced emotional distress, were not supported in their work, and were hindered — not supported — by their leaders as a result. This are all unacceptable.”
If a team member was ostracized by a client and is in acute distress, regardless of your perspective on the encounter, you must also attend to their distress — consider offering them the rest of the morning or day off, rearranging short-term deadlines and expectations, and following up the next day.
3. Identify the sources of harm and apologize for your role in them.
This is where your apology must be focused. Broad, nonspecific apologies are widely seen as empty efforts to dodge liability and give the impression of apologizing without providing anything of substance. Stakeholders, especially those who have been harmed, are likely to respond negatively to these empty apologies.
Instead, take efforts to understand how and why harm occurred as expediently as possible, and be thoughtful about attributing its causes. If a candidate experiences racist comments from a recruiter, the sources of harm may include not only that one recruiter, but also the lack of standardized training for all recruiters, a culture where comments like that go unchallenged, and a hiring strategy that pushes recruiters to make decisions on a far shorter timeframe than is ideal. Name these sources of harm in your apology. Example:
“Our lack of accountability processes as a leadership team and our lack of proactive communication with other areas of the organization contributed largely to the harm many employees experienced. This led to many members of our organization, especially more junior employees, feeling like their voices did not matter and were not considered in the decisions the organization made. We recognize our role in this harm, and deeply apologize. While we never intended for our actions to result in these outcomes, it is clear that we could have done much better and commit to doing so immediately.”
4. Make accountable commitments to change the sources of harm.
Immediately following the apology, specifically address each source of harm with an accountable commitment to do better. Include the greatest amount of detail possible on improvement plans, with a clear description of the desired end state and timelines, even if only rough ones. Establish milestones for public accountability and invite stakeholders to engage during those times to hold the organization and its leaders accountable to their commitments. If the follow-up to employee accusations of a sexist culture is a company-wide survey and DEI audit, share in as much detail as possible how long the search process for a tool or system will take (and employees’ role in it), the projected timeline for the audit, how and where findings from the audit will be shared, and the role that employees and leaders will play post-audit. Example:
“It is clear to us that better accountability processes are essential to help our organization improve. We are taking steps to organize regular forums within every department to collect employee feedback, with the intention of launching these within two months. We are additionally researching other resources, including an organizational ombuds or third-party anonymous employee feedback platform, and intend to share updates on these searches by the end of the quarter. Finally, we are looking for a third-party executive coach to help train our team to be more effective communicators over the coming year.
Your voice is incredibly important to us, and we appreciate your patience and understanding as we work to be a better organization. If you have suggestions or recommendations for vendors or other ways in which we can achieve the outcomes we have committed to, we invite you to fill out the attached anonymous feedback form. Thank you.”
5. Keep your word.
It’s one thing to say all the right things and another altogether to do what you say you will. Invitations for public accountability are powerful ways to demonstrate accountability and build trust. If you made promises you could not keep, these milestones may be an uncomfortable but necessary indicator of dissatisfaction. But if you do what you said you would, these milestones can assuage stakeholders that positive intentions are backed by action, that the organization is led by trustworthy leaders, and that more patience on their part is likely to result in more results on yours.
DEI-related harm is inevitable, even in organizations that do the utmost to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion in their day-to-day work. What an organization and its leaders do after harm has occurred, however, sends important signals about their willingness to learn, grow, and be held accountable, and demonstrates whether their commitment to DEI has any real teeth.
If you are able to address harm with empathy and compassion, accurately understand its root causes, and open yourself and your organization up for improvement even if it makes you look vulnerable and imperfect in the long-term, you’ll not only build trust among your stakeholders but be well on your way to achieving the end goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion.